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The Marys by Nuala O’Connor


As a Catholic in Ireland, Nuala O’Connor has encountered a range of Virgin Marys, each named and given a personality in her essay “The Marys”—from Our Lady of Knock to the Virgin of Montserrat, Our Lady Aparecida, Our Lady of Clonfert, Our Lady of Dublin (this section was previously published in A Pint and a Haircut from Lundubh Books), and a statue she has dubbed Our Lady of the Writing Cabin. “This one stands near me as I write, a mildly judgy look on her plump Irish face.” While most creative nonfiction essays are primarily narrative, or expository, or reflective, or analytical, or lyric, O’Connor moves deftly between all of these modes in “The Marys”: narrative scenes or glimpses of scenes (beautifully evoked in sensory details such as the “metallic echo-thunk” of the coins dropped in the votive box in the opening), expository presentation of information (about the contemporary Catholic Church, Ireland present and past, the various Marys, the wider historical context for her personal experience), analysis of Mary’s appearances (what did it mean when Virgin Mary statues all over Ireland began moving in 1985?), and reflection on the changing personal meaning of her lifelong Mariolatry. The essay opens in May, Mary’s month, and closes with a beautiful lyric riff on Mary’s color, blue. (See O’Connor’s author’s note on the importance of listening to what “sings loudest” when you write, and her renewed interest in “inward-looking essays” during the pandemic.)  —CRAFT


 

I go to the church on the town square and light a candle to Our Lady of Clonfert, our local Holy Mary. It is a flame of gratitude. I asked and I received. It is the warmest day of the year so far—a hot, blue-sky day in May, the Marian month. The church is empty and cold, but the red lamps before Jesus and the blue lamps before Mary glow warm, like hope. The gas lighter I use to light my votive clicks loudly. There is a metallic echo-thunk from the two coins I drop into the box as an offering—the suggested donation is thirty cents. I put my hands together, in mimicry of the statue before me, and whisper, ‘Thank you’.

Like many Irish Catholics, I left my devotion to the church behind me when scandal after cruelty after barbarity was uncovered. When it became clear that women were not just undervalued by the church, but actively hated. I was basted in church teachings as a child, but as an adult, I could no longer obey. However, in common with many other Catholics, my love for the iconography and architecture of churches never left me, the solemn, intricate beauty of its emblems still move and thrill me, and I have retained a deep love for religious art, symbols, and buildings.

I used to collect holy statues—Marys, mostly—but I recently culled and sold most of my collection at a car boot sale. I retained half a dozen favourites including a tall, cream-robed Our Lady of Knock that my mother gave me; a palm-sized blue china Madonna, a gift from my former mother-in-law; and a toddler-height, blue-sashed Mary that came from the house of a friend’s deceased parents. That one stands near me as I write, a mildly judgy look on her plump Irish face. She is, now, Our Lady of the Writing Cabin.


In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Gerty McDowell has a devotion to Our Lady—in her album of private treasures she keeps her Child of Mary badge. So far so ordinary for an early twentieth century Catholic girl in Ireland—the apparition at Knock took place only twenty-five years before the novel’s 1904 setting, and Mary-love on the island was feverish. In Ulysses, young Gerty hears the words ‘holy Mary, holy virgin of virgins’ on the breeze from the beach where she sits with her friends, the sounds of men at a church retreat, beseeching Our Lady of Loreto for intercessions—Mary as conduit to God.

Gerty’s passage in the Nausicaa episode is written in a style Joyce described as ‘namby-pamby jammy marmalady drawersy’ and it’s not hard to extract what he was getting at with that. Young Gerty is romantic and fresh, she’s on the cusp of womanhood and her voice has all the wanton, expectant energy of that time of life. Gerty is at the centre of Gerty’s world—on the day she sees Leopold Bloom, she is pensive and impatient, planning her rosy future with her ‘dreamhusband’. She is Stella Maris, star of the sea, musing on becoming a nun while hooking Bloom with her eyes and raising her legs to flash her knickers. Joyce weaves piety with passion in this episode—he was always trying to get people to see Ireland as it truly was, as opposed to through emerald-tinged glasses.

Gerty enjoys the stranger on the strand, watching her like a snake. She is aware she looks pert and pretty while she observes Bloom, knowing she has disturbed something devilish in him, and she also knows he is ‘worshipping at her shrine’. And she posits in Bloom all she wants in the man who will eventually, hopefully, lift her out of mundane poverty.

Beating through Gerty’s scene are a tiny Greek chorus of some of the ‘fragrant names’ and descriptors given to the Blessed Virgin: Spiritual vessel. Honourable vessel. Mystical rose. Refuge of sinners. Comfortress of the afflicted. Queen of angels. She is even referred to as queen of patriarchs—another Joycean dig at Mother Church.


Mariolatry is the name given to love of Mary and mine has been pretty lifelong; something about Mary—all of the Marys—reaches inside me and makes me want to linger and stare. I like the downcast eyes and baby-cradling, the variety of her robes and veils. I was brought up super-Catholic, probably because my father had been a brother in a Servite priory before leaving it and marrying my mother. As children, we were brought to special masses in Dublin’s city centre, outside our own suburban parish, as well as to Charismatic Renewal gatherings. We attended prayer meetings locally, and hands-on healing sessions in the Quaker Meeting House in Eustace Street in the city, where the Irish Film Institute is now.

I liked to pray as a child and I turned more often to Jesus’s mother than to either of the two main men. Mary was a friendlier prospect than injured, blood-seeping Jesus, and God seemed way too remote and lofty to be bothering with my meagre problems: boys I liked; a lack of money; a wish for a more glittering life. Mary had sad eyes (like me) and her open-handed stance seemed to invite confidences. She was a safe space, a silent friend with a large ear; Mary’s melancholy spoke to my own and, simply put, I liked her, and I still do.

My hoard of Marian statues may be much reduced but, when I look around my house, I find Mary peeping at me from various nooks: the Virgin of Montserrat on the shelf above the cooker, wooden and rough, holding Jesus in one hand and a tiny planet Earth in the other. Our Lady of Knock in the downstairs loo, slender, prissy, and pink-lipped. A tiny Our Lady of Aparecida brought back from Brazil, perched over my writing desk, her whole body veiled, her face patient and pious. The Aparecida’s long veil reminds me of Sinéad O’Connor, luminous as Holy Mary in the film version of Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy. Mary appears to Francie Brady, the novel’s troubled antihero, and in a gently exasperated voice she reprimands him. ‘For fuck’s sake, Francie,’ she says, in the exact sweet cadence you might expect of the Blessed Virgin.

I like the company of my Marys. I like that they loiter about my house, waiting for me to notice them, to stop for a word or a contemplative moment. When I see the Blessed Virgin’s sweet face peering at me in the course of my day, I always pause and say, ‘Hello’.


I came back from a short holiday in Belgium, raving to my Da about the beautiful fourteenth-century Black Madonna I had seen in Saint Catherine’s church there, the infant Jesus looking like a miniature George Washington. This sensuous Black Madonna was tossed into the River Senne by Protestants, but somehow landed on a clod of peat and was rescued and given a secure home behind glass in Saint Catherine’s.

My Da said, ‘You know about Our Lady of Dublin, of course, our own Black Madonna in Whitefriar Street Church?’

I didn’t, but I soon visited and was delighted with the story of her journey. This magnificent Reformation-era statue of the Virgin and Child, reputedly carved from German oak, is stained a deep brown as rich colours weren’t allowed in churches in those times. Our Lady of Dublin is placed high in a shrine and her dark body is illuminated by the jewelled crown on her head and the white marble and golden mosaic that surrounds her. The Virgin appears subdued, but the child Jesus, who is tucked into the folds of her robe, leaps in her arms.

Her original home was Saint Mary’s Abbey on the north side of the Liffey. During the sixteenth century, when monasteries were destroyed and their treasures stolen or ruined, Mary’s Abbey was used as a stable. Our Lady of Dublin was taken from the abbey and the length of her wooden back was hollowed out. She was placed face down in an inn-yard and used as a trough for feeding pigs and this almost certainly saved her from being destroyed. In the mid-1800s the statue was discovered in a pawnshop on Capel Street by Father John Spratt, the prior of Whitefriar Street, the same man, incidentally, who brought the remains of Saint Valentine to Dublin. Father Spratt transported this unusual Mary across the River Liffey to his church and gave her a safe home there.

Thirteen years ago, ring bought and question about to be popped, I warned my partner to ‘pick somewhere good’ for the deed. We left our Galway home for Dublin and, on a dark December night, just before Christmas, he brought me in a taxi from our posh hotel to Whitefriar Street and, there, under the watchful eyes of Our Lady of Dublin and Saint Valentine, we got engaged. I couldn’t have asked for a more thoughtful spot to seal our love.


We heard a lot about false Gods as child-Catholics. They were, we were warned, pagan gods which is ironic as many Irish saints are co-opted from those very pagan deities—amalgam saints, if you will. False gods, the nuns told us, were also any objects that we treated as overly important. Even the too-fervent love of Catholic statues could be seen as worshipping false gods, that is, the revering of the statue-as-object more than the saint. This is the territory of idolatry, but isn’t that something we excel at in Ireland, the fetishization of our statues? We have Marian housing estates with bulb-garlanded grottos at their centre; we wear scapulars and holy medals, and give them to the sick as healers; we have roadside shrines where our statues sometimes cry real tears or jig their bodies; we have our rag trees and holy wells.

The pagan influence that sees objects as talismans is probably the most attractive part of Catholicism for me. I am an objects person—I imbue meaning into things. And I visit my favourite Mary statues as if visiting the woman herself. When I had fertility problems, I went to the rag tree at Clonfert and fastened a baby’s soother to one of its festooned branches. Other people had fixed their wishes to the tree in the form of rosary beads, holy statues, baby shoes, ribbons, and coins. When I have a pressing request, I go down to the church on the square and seek out Our Lady of Clonfert, or the blind, weather-beaten Mary on the church’s grounds, whose fissured face is somehow joyful. When I travel, I seek out the local churches and light candles before Mary for those back home.


I was fifteen in the summer of 1985. It was a consistently rainy season and my mind was full of boys and Depeche Mode and dark, dark clothes. In July, my sister left Toronto the same day a flight from that city was blown up over the Atlantic, killing all 329 people onboard. We waited and waited to hear from my sister, and cried with relief when we found out she was not on that flight.

Ireland was in recession in 1985 and it was a depressing time for Irish women: the 8th Amendment to the Constitution was recently inserted; it recognised the equal right to life of pregnant women and the unborn, essentially denying women autonomy over their own bodies. In tandem, there were several high-profile cases of women in dire situations concerning unplanned pregnancies, and all of the women were failed by both State and church alike, a pair who had long been in cahoots to ensure that Irish people—most of all Irish women—were kept in a state of repression.

That summer of 1985, in various parts of Ireland, statues of the Virgin Mary began to move. Eyewitnesses reported statues weeping, floating, turning, ‘visions coming over’ the statues, and rays of heavenly light around them. The Ballinspittle Mary in Cork—the one that started the movement, so to speak—is tall at 1.72 metres. She stands in a grotto, on a height, and below her kneels the familiar red-clad form of Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, a firm favourite with Irish Catholics. The fence in front of these two is made of large blue capital letters reading ‘I AM THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION’. Shrines like this are a familiar sight up and down the country, but the Ballinspittle one is particularly sizable and arresting. It became a picturesque focus for the summer of the moving statues, the summer Catholicism tried to claw its way back into the good graces of the nation.

Ireland in 1985 was a place awash with contradictions and contrasts; we were in the middle of what feminist journalist and campaigner Nell McCafferty called ‘the war of the womb’. As a Catholic fifteen-year-old girl, new to boyfriends and their inevitable complications, what did all of this mean to me? I had been warned—threatened—about unplanned pregnancies by my mother and by the nuns who taught me, but specifics were in short supply. I was horrified and saddened by the case of teenager Ann Lovett who, in 1984, had died along with her baby son, giving birth at a Marian shrine in Granard, County Longford.

While I loved Mary, the moving statues brigade seemed to belong firmly to an Ireland I was extricating myself from, a place where there was most definitely a war on wombs. I was fascinated with, and sceptical of, those who claimed they saw statues moving—they alarmed me, they seemed a bit loony, a bit simple. I remember disdaining, for example, the woman who claimed to see ‘little birds flying in and out of Mary’s crown’ at Ballinspittle. The truth is, I would have loved if it were all true. Who wouldn’t want to see something so captivating, so magical? And who knows what need was being fulfilled for those who claimed they saw the Marian statues moving, what comforts and peace they got from the shimmy-shake of their beloved Virgin.

Despite my back-turning on the church’s narrow teachings, I learned how to bring Mary forward with me, into a more secular life, a life of emigration and return, of birth and grief, of marriage failure and new love. I wove her into both my poetry and my fiction; my novel The Closet of Savage Mementos opens with the main character kneeling before Mary in a remote Scottish church, looking for succour. After yet another pregnancy loss, I dreamt the Virgin statue in the hospital corridor came to life, took my baby’s unformed body in her hands, popped it in her mouth, and smiled. It was a strange dream, but also strangely comforting, and I wrote a poem to honour the relief it gave me to feel that my baby was safe.

I have managed to bring Mary with me to a place where I am at ease, as a modern woman, idolising the Mother of God. Where I feel, like Gerty McDowell in Ulysses—like Mary herself—central and important. I feel cared for in her presence and this feeling of being cherished inspires me and urges me on in my own caregiving. I’m grateful to Mary for the comfort she brings me, in any of her many forms: Undoer of Knots, Queen of Peace and of Matriarchs, Mother of all, Virgin of Hope.


An anvil-shaped cloud is cow-eye blue and silver, falling grey and water sodden, celestial green and Atlantic aqua, Connemara mountain light, Maamturk blue, New Holland and wheely-bin blue, true, blue of the heavy heart, blue of mist-hovering tarmac, motorway sign blue, the blue of headstones leaning in a tidy graveyard, skin and eye blue, bruise and corpse blue, blue anvil morphing to a mushroom cloud with a flat plateau, spreading to spill its load over already sopping Craughwell, over the blue of Our Lady of Knock, blue of the Virgin of hares, Virgin of elections, Virgin of petrol and oak tree, Virgin of motorist and school-teacher, Virgin of artist and mother, Virgin of loneliness, Virgin of rain.

 


NUALA O’CONNOR lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. Her forthcoming fifth novel, NORA, is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce; it appears early 2021. Her new chapbook of historical flash fiction, Birdie, is just published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk

 

Author’s Note

I am myself when I write; the hours when I’m writing are the best part of my day, a place of satisfaction that I want to occupy. The rest of my day can feel like prelude and postlude to that important time. But writing is also a constant hum in my brain, an enclosing bubble, and I am always in there, musing, waiting impatiently to sit at my desk, preparing myself with jottings, reading, and thoughts. My brain feeds me a narrative of sentences and I am happily distracted by that tinnitical chatter. In that sense, it was inevitable that I would write about the Virgin Mary—she is ever-present for me—but it struck me recently that I hadn’t examined her meaning to me as icon. Although I had done a cull of my Mary statues, they were gathering in my home again, and I wanted to examine the significance of these special Marys. And I needed context—hence the backdrop in my piece of the moving statues, of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and of the mistreatment of women in Catholic Ireland.

The first impulse for the essay came to me in the local church—I needed succour and I went to stand before Our Lady of Clonfert. I lit a candle and my internal natterbox fed me a sentence: ‘This is a flame of gratitude; I asked and I received’. When lines arrive like this, sometimes I reel them in and sometimes I don’t—out of laziness or lack of interest. But this I wanted to explore: why do I worship Virgin statues? What does Mary mean to me now, and what has she meant to me in the past?

2020 was supposed to be a different year in my life. I turned fifty, I planned to step off the treadmill of book work—promotion, teaching, literary events—and I planned not to write a novel. I saved for years and pre-booked holidays for 2020 in Ireland, Wales, Nashville, and Greece. The pandemic, of course, took care of most that—I was firmly pushed off the treadmill. The holidays—mostly—were not taken. So, with nowhere to go and no novel-plan, I followed the flush of nonfiction that had begun to flow for me last year. It felt easier to write about things I knew well—loss and hope, mostly. Mary, as symbolic, caring mother, seemed to fit with the inward-looking essays I had already written concerning pregnancy loss, perimenopause, the meaning of home, workplace bullies, crying, what clothes mean to me, and so on.

I wrote the Marys essay quickly. My notebook shows I explored many possible threads but, like all writing, sometimes it’s better to listen well to the aspects of a topic that sing loudest. Leslie Jamison suggests that ‘What’s your pleasure?’ is as profound a question for the essayist to ask herself as ‘What’s your damage?’. In my essay, I wanted to find out why exactly statues of Mary please me so much and I hope I answered that.

 


NUALA O’CONNOR lives in Co. Galway, Ireland. Her forthcoming fifth novel, NORA, is about Nora Barnacle, wife and muse to James Joyce; it appears early 2021. Her new chapbook of historical flash fiction, Birdie, is just published by Arlen House. Nuala is editor at flash e-zine Splonk